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(5/10) The next phase of modernisation needs to focus on the economy and blue collar Britain

By Tim Montgomerie
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Last week in Birmingham I presented a ten step plan to deliver the first Conservative majority since 1992. The plan is summarised on the new website.  Parts one, two, three and four have already been published.

(Step 5) The next phase of Conservative modernisation must blend traditional Tory causes with a commitment to blue collar, striving Britain

Modernisation is an ugly word in some Tory minds but any student of recent Tory election results cannot credibly argue that the Conservative Party doesn’t need to change. The real choice isn’t between those who want change and those who don’t but between different kinds of modernisers and the scale of modernisation that might still be necessary. This ConservativeHome Majority Project argues that modernisation is at best half done. We added 4% to our share of the vote at the last election and we need to add at least another 4% at the next in order to be sure of winning a majority. 

We argue that modernisation up until now has had four serious flaws.

Wrong ModernisationDAVID CAMERON PURSUED THE WRONG MODERNISATION: David Cameron got certain big calls right from the beginning of his leadership. The wisest decision was to convince voters that the NHS was as special to the Conservative Party as it was to the wider public. Some of us were wrong to believe that it was politically tenable to detoxify the party on the NHS without making the commitment that the David Cameron and George Osborne did make to maintain real spending on the Department of Health budget. But if Mr Cameron was right about the NHS he got one other big call very wrong. He and his strategists decided that the party’s problem was that it was too right-wing. In reality a lot more than half of the population hold so-called right-wing views on immigration, crime, Europe, tax and welfare. Research by YouGov for Policy Exchange found that large majorities of voters in the North of England also hold very conservative views on these issues. The Tory problem – in the North and in other political battlegrounds - was and is different. We aren’t seen as too right-wing but, to put it crudely, too rich. We are seen by too many floating voters as a party of better off, successful people, in it for ourselves. Too many people thought we'd leave them - or people they worried about - on their own in tough times. The chart below, based on YouGov research commissioned by ConHome, confirms this theory of the Tory challenge:

Screen Shot 2012-10-16 at 13.50.58Please click on the image to enlarge it.

This 'party of the rich/ not interested in the public services' problem was not only not addressed during the 2005 to 2010 period it was made worse in some respects. Conservatives said quality of life rather than standard of living mattered most (fine to say if you have a high income). We focused on impossible climate change goals with implications for the household electricity bill and the family's annual holiday in the sun. We opposed CCTV when people on crime-ridden estates saw it as part of the war on anti-social behaviour. The next phase of modernisation should be both blue (reasserting traditional Tory values more confidently) but also more blue collar (targeting tax cuts on the low-paid and focused on cost of living pressures).

MODERNISATION WAS NEVER BALANCED: We should have pursued a broad, balanced conservatism that took our core supporters with us as we added new floating voters. The party that will win the next election will walk and chew gum at the same time. It will be Eurosceptic and concerned about the local environment. It will be committed to border control and to the NHS. It will want to send more repeat offenders to jail and it will want to rehabilitate them while they are there. It will want to get able-bodied people off benefits altogether and increase benefits for low income pensioners. In other words the party that advances won't be focused on the centre ground but on the common ground. It won't be camped in the middle of the stage but hungrily, ambitiously camped right across it. The Cameroon modernisers consistently took our base voters for granted - ignoring warnings that they were doing so. The dangerous leakage to UKIP is the result. Cameron has divided the Right. If he doesn’t correct it, it could be his longest lasting legacy.

THE MODERNISATION THAT WAS PURSUED WAS SHALLOW: The modernisation that has been pursued has been shallow. Climate change was supposedly the greatest challenge of our age but since becoming Prime Minister David Cameron hasn’t made one speech on it. The NHS had, he said, had enough of top-down re-organisations but was then… top-down reorganised. There was a promise to deliver one-third of ministerial positions to women but instead some very average men have been kept on the frontbench while new talent is denied promotion. Gay marriage is announced but never fought for.

MODERNISERS NEGLECTED THE ECONOMY: At the beginning of David Cameron’s time in office it was almost as if economics had been disinvented. Britain and the world were still enjoying the long boom. Gordon Brown even boasted that he had abolished boom and bust. The party was entirely focused on mending Britain’s ‘broken society’. When it came to the economy there were only two arguments. Argument one was about “sharing the proceeds of growth”. How much should go to tax cuts and how much to even higher spending. The second argument concerned the desirability of growth. David Cameron promoted General Well Being over GDP as a better way of thinking of progress. Once the financial crash happened in 2008 the Tory leadership was quick to lead the world in identifying excessive borrowing and debt as central political and economic issues. It is still unclear, however, whether the Tory leadership and centre right think tanks have made a bold enough leap towards the kind of wider new economic thinking that is necessary.
Concluding this section: The next phase of modernisation needs to be at least as deep as that which went before but it also must be different. Focused on bold economic reforms. Focused on the striving classes. Focused on a fusion between the best of traditional and new Tory thinking. Focused on a long-term refashioning of the Tory brand rather than short-term positioning.

The next phase of modernisation needs to be at least as deep as that which went before but it also must be different...

  • Focused on bold economic reforms;
  • Focused on the striving classes;
  • Focused on a fusion between the best of traditional and new Tory thinking;
  • Focused on a long-term refashioning of the Tory brand rather than short-term positioning.


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